Tim Wheeler of Ash Shows the Guitars That Light His Fire

March 9th, 2016

This is an excerpt from the all-new MARCH/APRIL 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story and more photos, plus features on Billy Gibbons in Cuba, six decades of Gretsch guitars on display in Nashville, Texas chef and guitar aficionado Dean Fearing, and our annual Motoring section featuring stories on the latest motorcycles and the vintage guitar and car collections of author Jonathan Kellerman, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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BURNING LOVE: Tim Wheeler of Ash provides a closer look at the guitars that light his fire.

By Joe Bosso | Photos by Justin Borucki

“I feel like I’m finally settled,” says Ash guitarist and frontman Tim Wheeler. The Northern Irish rocker is sitting on a couch in the cozy lounge of Atomic Heart Studios, a four-room facility on West 28th Street in Manhattan that he purchased soon after moving to New York City in 2005. “I’d spent almost a decade in London, and I was buying up a lot of gear on eBay. I couldn’t find studio space there, and I always wanted to live in New York, so I thought, Why not give it a go? Mark [Hamilton], our bass player, moved here at the same time. It just made perfect sense.”

After only a few months in Manhattan, Wheeler happened upon a hip-hop studio called the Firehouse that was up for grabs, so he bought it. At a time when many of the city’s top studios have downsized or bitten the dust entirely, Atomic Heart is surviving—and even thriving. “We do solid business,” Wheeler reports. “We share the space with Claudius Mittendorfer, who worked on the new Weezer album and had his first Number One with Fallout Boy recently. Johnny Marr mixed his last two albums here, and we’ve had Interpol in. It’s been busy.”

The studio now also functions as a convenient working spot for Ash, who tracked their latest release, Kablammo!, here. In addition, Atomic Heart has sort of become Wheeler’s functional guitar museum, with more than a dozen of his personal pieces scattered about. “Everything you see I use,” he says. “I don’t buy guitars just to hang on the wall.”

Wheeler picks up his pride and joy workhorse guitar, a battered 1960 Gibson Les Paul Custom “black beauty,” outfitted with three PAF humbucking pickups. Wheeler bought the instrument in 1997 from a British guitar broker after pocketing some money from a TV appearance. “It’s the most I ever paid for a guitar,” he points out. “I think it was £7,000 [roughly $10,500] or something like that. Apparently it once belonged to one of the members of Badfinger. The guy who sold it to me showed me a couple of late-Fifties Standards, but they were about 30 grand apiece. The black beauty Custom was seven, so I had to go for it.”

As Wheeler strums a few chords on it, his face lights up. “The thing’s amazing,” he continues. “I love the thin neck; the three pickups are cool; and it’s just gorgeous to play. Since I got it, it’s been pretty much the main guitar on everything I’ve recorded.” Wheeler nearly gasps at the mention of taking the black beauty out on tour. “Oh God, no,” he says. “The thing’s much too precious.”

Wheeler was just 12 years old when he received his first guitar, an Explorer copy, for Christmas in 1989. The holiday also marked the unofficial start of Ash, as on the same day his school pal Hamilton got the gift he’d most wished for—a bass. “It was pretty much all set up,” Wheeler says, laughing. “We told our parents that we wanted guitars to start a band.”

The Explorer copy lasted four years, during which time Wheeler and Hamilton had hooked up with drummer Rick McMurray and started working on demos. Wheeler’s next guitar (“my first real guitar”) was a 1977 Fender Stratocaster. “It was pretty beat up, but it was amazing,” he says. “It had been refinished twice, and then I refinished it myself, stripping it down to its ash wood body. I had it like that for a long time. Then, five years ago, I turned it into a salmon pink.” He pauses a second before adding, “And now it’s a silver-metallic finish. A lot of changes to that thing.”

Unlike most bands, Ash succeeded pretty much out of the box. Before any of the members could buy a beer, they’d recorded an EP, Trailer, signed with London’s Infectious Records, and toured the States. Two days after finishing his school exams, in 1996, Wheeler was onstage at the Glastonbury Festival (“a truly surreal experience”), and two weeks later Ash’s debut album, 1977, was released and spilled out such buoyant alt-rock hit singles as “Girl from Mars,” “Kung Fu” and “Interceptor.” “It was a hot time for guitar music in Britain,” Wheeler recalls. “Blur, Oasis, Supergrass, Pulp were all hitting the charts big-time. We were thrilled to be part of that.”

Wheeler’s main guitars on 1977 were a 1994 Les Paul Standard he bought with his first record advance (“I really rocked that guitar. I set it on fire a few times and scratched it up good”) and a 1995 Gretsch 6129 Silver Jet he purchased in Nashville on the band’s first U.S. tour. Admiring the glistening Gretsch in his hands, Wheeler recalls, “It was Halloween, and I just walked in a store and saw it. It was visually stunning, but when I plugged it in, it really fit the sound I was going for—big, beefy, dirty, and powerful.”

With Ash a hit-making entity, in 1996 Wheeler moved to Islington in Greater London, where he discovered a second home, Angel Guitars. “I started to get into investing in guitars,” he explains, “and Angel had beautiful stuff.” He picks up a well-worn 1966 sunburst Stratocaster. “Like this one. It’s great for playing Hendrix kind of stuff. I thought it would be nice to have more diversity of tones for the studio. I love the neck pickup for soloing, and the tremolo has been quite handy. It’s made some appearances here and there.”

Wheeler also bought a blonde 1959 Telecaster from Angel Guitars for £2,500 (approximately $3,800). Soon after, the price for such models shot through the roof. “I think the guy who runs the place, Andy, is mad at me about that,” Wheeler says with a chuckle. “He always talks about that Tele as ‘the one that got away.’ It’s a great guitar, quite ‘mid-y’ for a single-coil pickup. It doesn’t have that big, chimey Fender sound. It’s full, but it’s got dirt to it, too. I’ve used it on a lot of records, including one of our biggest songs, ‘Shining Light.’”

Wheeler is referring to the brisk, rousing single from Ash’s 2001 album, Free All Angels. The song earned Wheeler the coveted Ivor Norvello Award for Best Contemporary Song (“an unbelievable honor, especially because other songwriters did the voting”) and fattened his bank account considerably when Annie Lennox scored a major hit with her own heavily reworked version in 2009. “That was amazing,” Wheeler says. “I couldn’t believe it. Her take on it was quite different from ours, but so what? Why should she or anyone do it just like ours? Hearing her sing it was one of the proudest feelings I’ve ever had. She has one of the greatest voices ever.”

Next, Wheeler turns his attention to a Korina 1982 Gibson Flying V fitted with 1958 zebra-coil PAFs, his main touring guitar, which he also purchased at Angel Guitars. “That place has done all right by me,” he says, laughing. “The second I saw this thing, I knew it was made for me. It so heavy metal, but it’s got that whole sci-fi retro thing, too. It’s really quite light. It didn’t take me too long to get used to it. It’s not a real ‘sitting-down’ guitar, but it’s great for standing onstage and doing the rock-star thing.”

Wheeler took the rock-star thing to the next level for Ash’s 2004 Meltdown tour when he bought a brand-new Epiphone Flying V with the sole purpose of shooting fire from it onstage. “I was into a lot of metal in the late Eighties—Kiss, Iron Maiden and a lot of those show bands,” he says. “Believe me, a guitar that shoots fire definitely makes an impression…”

This is an excerpt from the all-new MARCH/APRIL 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story and more photos, plus features on Billy Gibbons in Cuba, six decades of Gretsch guitars on display in Nashville, Texas chef and guitar aficionado Dean Fearing, and our annual Motoring section featuring stories on the latest motorcycles and the vintage guitar and car collections of author Jonathan Kellerman, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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